Tyrese Haliburton, Jalen Brunson
(NBAE/Getty Images)

New Faces Take Center Stage as Pacers, Knicks Renew Postseason Rivalry

The Pacers and Knicks will renew their storied postseason rivalry on Monday night at Madison Square Garden with a new set of characters, as the two teams open their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinal series.

Indiana and New York have met seven times in the postseason, including six times in an eight-year span from 1993-2000. But they've met just one time since — a second-round matchup in 2013 where the Pacers prevailed in six games.

Many current players on both sides weren't even alive for many of those battles in the 90s (Pacers All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton was born in 2000, for instance) and were still teenagers the last time the two teams met in the playoffs. But they're still very aware of all the history between the two franchises.

Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle was on the sidelines for three of those series himself, serving as an assistant coach under Larry Bird from 1997-2000. The Pacers beat the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1998, were upset in the conference finals in 1999, then got their revenge the next year to advance to the NBA Finals for the first (and to-date, only) time in franchise history.

Before the Pacers began their preparation for the Knicks at Saturday's practice at the Ascension St. Vincent Center, Carlisle gave his team a little history lesson on what Pacers-Knicks playoff series have been like in the past and what the team can expect when they set foot in Madison Square Garden for Game 1 on Monday night.

"I’m fully aware of what the rivalry’s looked like and the outcomes of all these series," Haliburton said at Saturday's practice. "I’m just excited to be a part of it. I think that me being with the Pacers and being a part of the long-term future here, it was only (a matter of time) before we played these guys.

"It’s a great team. They play really hard. Obviously just a storied franchise, a storied matchup between us two, so excited to add another chapter to that and be a part of it."

The faces have changed over the years, but this latest matchup promises to be another memorable matchup. While previous versions were headlined by Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing or Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the marquee names this time around are Haliburton and Knicks All-Star guard Jalen Brunson.

A 27-year-old guard out of Villanova, Brunson signed with the Knicks as a free agent after four seasons in Dallas in the summer of 2022 and in two short seasons has already become one of the most iconic Knicks players this century.

He averaged 28.7 points and 6.7 assists in the regular season while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 40.1 percent from 3-point range. He averaged 35.7 points in three games against Indiana this season, scoring 40 in a win on Feb. 1 and 39 in a loss on Feb. 10.

Brunson was brilliant in the first round against Philadelphia, averaging 35.5 points and 9.0 assists over six games. He got better as the series went on, surpassing 40 points in the final three games of the series, including a 47-point, 10-assist performance in a Game 4 win at Philadelphia and a 41-point, 12-assist showing as the Knicks closed out the series in Game 6.

The Pacers are very familiar with Brunson. Carlisle was his coach over his first three seasons in Dallas, while Haliburton became good friends with him over the summer while playing for USA Basketball together at the FIBA World Cup.

Haliburton was already friends with Knicks guard Josh Hart heading into the summer because they share the same agent, then found himself spending most of his time hanging out with former Villanova stars Brunson, Hart, and Nets forward Mikal Bridges during the World Cup, joking that he was "substitute Donte," playing the part of Donte DiVincenzo, another Knicks guard and former Villanova standout.

When the Pacers clinched a playoff berth on the April 14 on the final day of the regular season, Haliburton said that the first person he talked to on the phone was Brunson, as the two Facetimed and discussed their excitement heading into the postseason. Now, they'll find themselves matched up.

When Brunson was in Dallas, he wasn't playing the same featured role he is now, instead serving in a supporting capacity next to All-NBA guard Luka Doncic. But Carlisle is not surprised by the leap his former player has been able to take after being handed the keys to the offense by Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau in New York.

"Jalen Brunson is a guy you would never bet against if you know him," Carlisle said. "You just don’t bet against that guy. I don’t know if anybody saw this coming, what’s he’s achieved in two years there. But if you know him and you know his character, you’re not surprised, you’re not shocked.

"He’s an obviously highly skilled player, but he’s got an indomitable will to accomplish what naysayers don’t think he can do. He’s just one of those kind of guys. You’ve got to respect what he’s done."

Indiana Pacers Media Availability | May 4, 2024

There are several other interesting storylines surrounding this particular matchup. The Pacers and Knicks both made big moves during the season two acquire talented forwards from the Toronto Raptors, with the Knicks acquiring former Indiana University star OG Anunoby on Dec. 30 and the Pacers trading for Pascal Siakam on Jan. 17.

The Siakam acquisition has been a home run for Indiana, as the 30-year-old forward has provided both another top scoring option and a veteran voice with championship experience in a relatively young locker room.

Siakam elevated his game in the first round against Milwaukee, averaging 22.3 points on 54.7 percent shooting, 8.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists over the six-game series. He carried the offense in the early part of the series, tallying 36 points and 13 rebounds in Game 1 and 37 points, 11 boards, and six assists in Game 2.

The 6-7, 240-pound Anunoby has also fit in very well in New York, giving the defensive-minded Thibodeau another elite, long-armed defender. Anunoby averaged 14.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.7 steals in 23 games in the regular season with the Knicks and 15 points, 6.8 boards, and 1.3 blocks in the first round against the Sixers.

Interestingly, Anunoby did not play in any of the three regular-season meetings between the Pacers and Knicks. He was traded the day of their first game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Dec. 30, then missed both matchups in February due to an elbow injury. Siakam, however, is very familiar with his former teammate.

"I’m glad that he’s been able to flourish the way that he has over there," Siakam following Sunday's practice. "He’s a tough player and somebody that you’ve got to make sure you know where he’s at all times on both sides of the floor."

"He fits in so perfect with what they do," Haliburton added. "He’s a Thibs guy, you know what I mean? He guards the best player, guards his (tail) off, and crashes the glass like crazy, makes open shots. What more could you ask for in today’s game? He’s a great player. We’ve got to be ready to compete against him."

Like all Thibodeau teams, the Knicks are tenacious and known across the league for playing extremely hard. They rebound exceptionally well, particularly on the offensive glass. New York led the league in offensive rebounds in the regular season, pulling down 12.7 per game, and crashed the boards even harder in the first round against Philadelphia, collecting 14.5 offensive rebounds per game.

Thibodeau plays a tight rotation. He only deployed a seven players in the final two games against Philadelphia, with Brunson logging 44 or more minutes over the final four games of the series.

"It’s no secret how hard they play," Haliburton said. "It’s no secret how hard everybody crashes the glass...It’s what you live for. These guys play super hard. They don’t play a ton of guys. They’re just balls to wall at all times. We’ve just got to match their intensity and be ready to play our style of basketball."

When discussing the Knicks’ physicality on the glass after Saturday’s practice, Haliburton joked that he had been watching a lot of tape of Colts All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson to prepare for the series. Then on Sunday, Haliburton donned a Nelson jersey for the team flight to New York.

Playing against the Knicks in the playoffs come with its own set of distractions. Celebrities will be lining the floor at Madison Square Garden, with longtime Pacers antagonist Spike Lee likely to take his customary courtside seat. Carlisle has warned his team the importance of keeping their focus admist all distractions.

“Starting off in Madison Square Garden is the ultimate," Carlisle said. "It’s the ultimate challenge, it’s the ultimate environment…It’s a very intense matchup.

“These are the kind of things that come with this kind of stage. Look forward to it, embrace it, but we’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing and that is concentrating on the team."

Indiana Pacers Media Availability | May 5, 2024